Mistress of the Mix: DNA

I probably shouldn’t be telling you this. Not just because it involves my husband crying some pretty hard tears and spilling family secrets, but because it kind of gives away the ending… the end of the blockbuster movie about my husband’s life, just before the screen fades to black and the credits start to roll. And there will be one. Someday. Mark my words. I’ll have to write the book first, then adapt it for a screen play. But every time I sit down to put the story of his life into words for you to read, it starts playing out in my head like a movie.

Let me set the scene for you, the way I see it in the theater of my brain. In the movie starring Matthew McConnaughey or maybe Owen Wilson. Its a misty Saturday afternoon in March on the Oregon coast. Fog rolls down through the Millicoma River valley off the hills, logged long ago by Weyerhauser. Where the west and east forks of the river meet, there’s a small community named Allegany. Its mostly retired loggers and ranch workers. There’s a total of about ten houses not counting the barns, a church, and a post office.  The store shut down years ago, but its still there. Someone’s living in it. There’s a little graveyard, but its on private property. You have to know how to find it. Its just past the last house on the right, through a gate, past a clear cut and tucked back among the Douglas Fir and Myrtlewood trees.  Kneeling down at the first grave on the far left is a 52 year old man meeting his father for the first time. He wipes away the moss from the engraved words on the cement marker, and wipes away the tears falling down his face as he mourns the missed opportunity of a father-son relationship.

That man – the one on his knees – is my husband.

When he was born in the fall of 1965, Eddie was given the last name of a man his mother had already divorced, but Margaret went to her grave swearing that man was his father. Their paths crossed only once, and that was on a telephone line. It was Eddie’s 14th birthday. He was living in Eugene with his oldest sister after getting kicked out of school for fighting. For punching the principal, actually. He was trying to get a fresh start in a new town where his reputation wouldn’t follow him. Or any school where the principal would take him. The phone rang, and on the other end was a man who’s name he recognized only because they had the same last name.

He got right to the point. “I’m calling to tell you I’m not your dad. Your old enough to know. It ain’t me. Your mom and I were divorced a year before you were born (which wasn’t true), and I was gone long before that.”

That part was true.

Buddy had left, then come back later and kidnapped the middle sister Laura, who was almost four. He walked right into his in-laws house where Margaret had taken her two daughters after they split up, and grabbed her. Ten year old Kathy held onto his arm and wailed, pleading for her daddy to take her instead and leave Laura, or just take her too. Not because things were bad at the grandparents house, but because she was afraid of what might happen to Laura if Kathy wasn’t there to protect her.

But Buddy shook her off, threw Laura in the car and drove off down the road, Kathy running after him, crying. Buddy ended up taking his little girl all the way to Colorado. Then once he got there, he dumped her at his mother’s house, telling her that Margaret didn’t want her because she was sickly. The grandmother didn’t ask questions, she just cared for the little girl until the sheriff showed up one day months later and started asking questions. Then the FBI showed up, and Laura was returned to Oregon. At least that’s how the story gets told at family gatherings. We always assumed that when Buddy returned to kidnap Laura, somehow Eddie was conceived. That maybe Eddie was the product of rape.

Buddy told Eddie that if he didn’t believe him, he should check the divorce papers. He even told him where to look, saying they were probably in that metal suitcase Margaret kept under her bed. If he had, which he didn’t, Eddie would’ve seen that Margaret was granted a divorce in July of 1965 for reasons of cruel and inhuman treatment, which was a recurring theme with Buddy.

Buddy said a few more unkind words about his ex-wife, Eddie called him a son of a bitch, and the phone call ended. And that was it. The only conversation he’d ever have with his father while he was alive.

Until the DNA test.

Eddie always thought there was a chance Buddy might’ve been telling the truth. He had no idea what Buddy looked like, had never even seen a photo. But his oldest sister is small boned with a thin nose and dark hair.  Eddie is considerably more solid with strawberry blonde hair and a ruddy complexion. She looks southern European, and he could pass as a Viking. Or look really good in a kilt. His nose is rounder. His belly is rounder. But maybe that’s just the pizza and ice cream.

We were discussing those differences about a year ago while visiting with the sisters, musing over their potential lineage when I suggested a DNA test.

Eddie said he thought it might finally tell him if his real father was indeed Buddy, or if it was another man, specifically his mom’s next long term boyfriend, Donald. Donald – whose nickname was Red – died in prison, so they were told. But the kids remember him. Oh, they remember him. But that’s another story. One I’m saving for that novel. But the short story on Donald is that he was a heroin addict with a mean streak who inflicted the kind of trauma on his family that no kid should ever experience.

Laura offered the theory that if Buddy wasn’t his dad, she thought the most likely candidate would be one of the neighbors mom was always disappearing into the barn with. We all laughed, but then Laura said she thought there was a good chance that they each might have different fathers, and perhaps they should all get tested. Kathy chimed in and said that when Buddy had kidnapped Laura, and she had begged him to take her along, Buddy’s reply was that he didn’t think Kathy was actually his daughter, and the only one he was positive was really his – was Laura. One thing the three kids that shared the Tompkins name knew without a doubt was this: whether they were all full siblings, all half siblings or somewhere in between, they were family. And that would never change.

Eddie unwrapped his DNA test on Christmas morning, spit into a tube, and got the results back a month later. In the meantime, I had done extensive research on both Buddy and Donald. I knew they had both gone on to father other children. I knew Donald had a daughter who, coincidentally, lived right here in Shasta County near her mother for a time. She’s got about 14 Facebook accounts, a new one for each time she got out of jail and got a new smart phone. There was even a small write-up about one of her arrests a few years ago in the local rag. We were nervous about the idea of reaching out to her, so we didn’t, until we knew for sure. But I researched the family just in case, and knew all the surnames of his direct ancestors going back a few hundred years.

I could take Buddy’s family back to the 16th century. His ancestors were some of the first settlers at Plymouth Rock. More recently, I knew Buddy had a daughter Linda in Kansas. Far enough away that it was safe to reach out. She was pretty, with the same black hair and thin face that Kathy has. Those two looked like they could be sisters. We connected. I asked her if she’d be willing to take a DNA test, and sent her one.

I also knew that Buddy and Donald were both dead, and had been for years.

The day we got the test results back, we logged in to Ancestry, and clicked on DNA matches. Linda had gotten hers back the day before, so if they were siblings, she should be at the top of the list.

Nope. She wasn’t there at all.

“Well, that’s settled,” I told him as we looked at the computer screen. “Buddy was telling the truth. He’s not your dad.”

Even though no sibling came up as a match, there was one – a woman – listed as a close enough match that she was most likely Eddie’s first cousin. That meant they shared a set of grandparents. She only had seven people listed in her family tree. We didn’t recognize the woman’s name, and were confident that she was not a cousin on Eddie’s mother’s side. This was the link to his father. Her grandparents were Doyle, O’Farrell, Boren and Willis. Names that weren’t found anywhere on any of the family trees I’d created over the past ten years. Not his mothers, not Buddy’s, not Donald’s. They were all completely unfamiliar.

“I always knew I was adopted!”

“You were not adopted, Eddie. Hang on a moment, let me figure this out.”

I spent five quick minutes looking at the other DNA matches. There were plenty of other cousins who popped up, lower on the list, that I was familiar with. Names I recognized from Eddie’s mom’s family tree. Cousins I had been collaborating with on genealogy work for almost a decade. He definitely wasn’t adopted. But he also definitely wasn’t the son of Buddy Tompkins.

Then I went back to that first cousin. I clicked on her family tree, and looked at the information she’d plugged in for each grandparent. Not where they were born, but where they had died. Two in Colorado. One in New Mexico. And one in Oregon. Not just Oregon, but Coos County. Where Eddie was born.

“These people are your grandparents, Eddie. Do you recognize anything about their names?” He didn’t. But I did. Somehow, I did. I couldn’t tell you why I kept staring at one of those names, and just knew it was something I’d come across somewhere before, even though it was stuffed so far back into the file cabinet of my brain, that I knew there was no way I could retrieve the mental information that I knew I had. So I picked up the phone and called the one person I knew would have the answer.

Folks, this is what they call a cliffhanger. This is that moment when I encourage you to take a few minutes and let it all all sink in. But stay tuned. Because the rest of the story is coming in the next edition of the Mistress of the Mix. But until then if you know how this story ends, don’t spoil the ending for others, and instead stream the Spotify DNA playlist below.

Valerie Ing

Valerie Ing has been the Northern California Program Coordinator for Jefferson Public Radio in Redding for 14 years and can often be found serving as Mistress of Ceremonies at the Cascade Theatre. For her, ultimate satisfaction comes from a perfect segue. She and her husband are parents to a couple of college students and a pair of West Highland Terriers, and Valerie can’t imagine life without them or music. The Mistress of the Mix wakes up every day with a song in her head, she sings in the shower and at the top of her lungs in the car.

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